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What Makes an Action Moral? Linguistics, Intentionality, and Responsibility

Ferdinand D. Yates

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On October 21, 2002, the United States Supreme Court refused (via a slim 5-4 margin) to change our nation's policy on the death penalty for juveniles who committed homicide when they were under the age of 18. The minority opinion was that the death penalty should not be allowed for "young murderers." Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the four justices who thought that the Court should reconsider the death sentence for juveniles, wrote that, "The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society." 1

The words of Justice Stevens are almost ethereal. His words ring in our ears and give us pause to ponder the greatness and advancement of our society. Yet, at the same time, we must connect the deliberation of the Justice with the facts of the crime record. The case presented involved Kevin Stanford, who was sentenced to death for abducting, sodomizing, and killing a 20-year-old gas station attendant when he was just 17 years old. The body of the victim was found sprawled over the rear seat of a car -- the horrific abuse that she suffered evident. I wonder which part of this particularly gruesome scene Justice Stevens, society, or the victim's family would find consistent "...with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society"? I wonder if the accused was even the least bit concerned with "standards of decency"? Yet, there are those who find the death penalty appalling and seek clemency for young murderers. Apparently, Justice Stevens and three of his colleagues are in this camp.

My intent here is not to argue for the death penalty. There are many more celebrated and eloquent individuals who have argued -- and will continue to argue -- in favor of this punishment. My concern is with linguistics, intentionality, and responsibility. What we say, what we mean, and what we do are all deliberate actions that may or may not portend consistency "...with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society."

Our words are critically important in that they (should) depict forethought, coupled with the rational development of ideas and potential consequences. In a civilized society, our words should not only be meaningful, but respected and dependable. However, our speech presently does not seem to carry as much weight as it did in a bygone era. I began my career as a pediatrician more than 20 years ago with a handshake and without a contract. This would not -- and probably should not -- happen today. Yet it seems that the art of linguistics is currently more concerned with allowing deception than fostering honor. As examples, consider the escapades of our immediate past president as he responded on a national telecast to allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct, or the sleight of hand of scientists and the media as the term "somatic cell nuclear transplant" is publicized in substitution for the term "cloning." We must be on guard not only with respect to how we perceive the words that are spoken, but also with respect to how those who hear us understand the words that we say.

Intentions are probably of equal importance to words. We recognize the importance of our intentions as they represent our inner thoughts, ideals, and desires. Intentions, be they good or bad, are a reflection of our inner being and the world-view that we hold. We explain our intentions as we deal with family, friends, or colleagues. How often have we protested, in response to a problem or a bad result, "But my intention was..."? In fact, the magnitude of a problem is often seemingly diminished by the justification of intention in that we are given the opportunity to explain our rational thought process and to express the amount of concern and time devoted to choosing a particular course of action. It is a more than curious observation that, despite the outcome of the action, the intention behind it is often regarded as being of paramount importance, and that -- as a society -- we consider ourselves civilized by the intentions we portray.

The issue of responsibility and the act of "doing" is somewhat elusive. Perhaps this is largely because our intentions betray us or we hide behind the linguistics of the situation. We are, at times, also somewhat schizophrenic as we make excuses for the action or responsibility at hand. We are, after all "fallen creatures living in a fallen world." Are we truly responsible for our actions, or can we attribute the blame elsewhere? Are our actions our responsibility or our parents, or are they a product of our genes? Our "civilized society" will both praise an altruistic organ donation and make excuses for a teenage murderer. If we act in such polar opposites, how can we expect those following us to do any different?

As problematic as "doing" might be, the performed action becomes the basis for the next series of events -- manifested by the linguistics, the intentionality, and the responsibility. Subsequently, the process recycles, the issues are revisited, and the problems (potentially) are repeated. God's Word offers a better pattern. The Bible speaks of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). These prescriptions are all actions--no linguistics and no intentions. What could be simpler?

1. Justice John Paul Stevens, Dissenting Opinion, Docket 01-1009, October 21, 2002.

Copyright 2002 by The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. The contents of this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CBHD, its staff, board or supporters. Permission to reprint granted as long as The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and the web address for this article is referenced.

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